BASEBALL’S P.T. BARNUM

From The Attic — for a Kinder, Cooler America

“If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s gonna stop ‘em.”

— YOGI BERRA

CHICAGO — JULY 1979 — The White Sox were struggling but the stands were full. Welcome to Disco Demolition Night.

The offer: bring a disco record and get into Comiskey Park for 98 cents. Promoters expected 20,000 fans but little did they know how many people loathed the Bee Gees. By gametime, some 50,000 were on hand.

“Disco sucks! Disco sucks!” Chants filled the stadium. Records flew from the stands and wedged in the grass. And when one huge vat of vinyl exploded in centerfield, the place went wild. Fans swarmed the field. Players fled to the clubhouse. Someone called the cops. The Sox owner pleaded for calm but the game was canceled. Well, he thought. That’s show biz.

Baseball owners are a buttoned-down bunch. Rich tycoons, they count their millions while hailing the game as a holy shrine. But one baseball mogul made “every day a Mardi Gras and every fan a king.” His name, he always said, rhymed with “wreck.”

Bill Veeck called himself “the only human being ever raised in a ballpark.” Veeck’s father was a Chicago sportswriter who blasted the Cubs — relentlessly. Finally, owner William Wrigley dared him to run the team. The elder Veeck became Cubs president in 1918 and his son was soon selling popcorn at Wrigley Field.

When his father died, Veeck took a front office job, becoming an eccentric at play. Veeck read a book a day, always voted Socialist, and refused to wear the owner’s uniform of suit and tie. When a World War II accident left him with a wooden leg, Veeck carved holes in it to use as an ashtray. But no one ever brought so much fun to the grand old game.

Veeck honed his antics in AAA ball where he pioneered special nights at the park. Not just Cap Night or Ball night but Stepladder Night. Greased Pig Night. He once froze a thousand silver dollars in a block of ice, then watched some “lucky” fan try to take it home.

And crowds came.

But Veeck also knew baseball. So after the war, as “a vulture in search of a dying ballclub,” he saw promise in the hapless Cleveland Indians. He began by making good on a previous plan.

In 1942, Veeck hatched a scheme to buy the Phillies and sign Negro League players. Commissioner Landis intervened. So when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line, Veeck was ready. He quickly signed outfielder Larry Doby, then 42-year-old Satchel Paige. Many thought signing Paige was a stunt but ol’ Satch started before sellout crowds, won game after game, and helped Cleveland win the World Series.

Meanwhile, back in the stands, Veeck’s promos raised attendance from a half million to a record 2.6 million. Women showed up for Orchid Night. Fans loved Max Patkin, “The Clown Prince of Baseball,” doing his antics as third base coach. Then a fan complained that Veeck was honoring everyone but “the average Joe.” So Veeck staged “Good Old Joe Earley Night” and gave Joe gifts at home plate.

In 1949, when Veeck’s Indians tanked, he had their World Series flag buried in centerfield, then visited bars all over Cleveland, apologizing to fans. But he soon sold the club and was on the prowl again. When he bought the woeful St. Louis Browns, the stage was set for his most infamous promotion.

One August night in 1951, fans settled in for the second game of a double-header. No one noticed when the scoreboard lineup began with Gaedel — 1/8. Then Eddie Gaedel, standing 3’ 7”, stepped into the batter’s box. The umpire balked.

Veeck was prepared. He had signed Gaedel to a contract and given a copy to his manager. Baseball had no height limit. There was nothing the ump could say. As Gaedel went into a crouch, the pitcher could hardly stop laughing. Gaedel walked on four pitches, raced to first, slapped his pinch-runner on the butt, then ran off into baseball immortality.

Five nights later came Grandstand Manager Night. Fans behind the home dugout were given huge cards reading YES and NO. While the Browns’ manager sat in a rocking chair, Veeck’s PR man called out questions. Sacrifice? Steal? Shall We Jerk the Bum? Fans voted and the play was made. The Browns won 5–3.

Veeck soon sold the Browns to Baltimore businessmen who made them the Orioles. Veeck moved on, later buying the White Sox and introducing promos we take for granted — names on uniforms and a scoreboard exploding with fireworks after a homerun. His Sox soared in attendance and on the field, making the World Series in 1959.

But baseball owners hated Bill Veeck, finding his promotions “vulgar.” When Veeck tried to buy the L.A. Angels, then the Washington Senators, owners blocked his bids. He spent a dozen years out of the game, returned for a stint with the White Sox, then retired shortly after Disco Demolition Night. Until his death in 1986, he could often be seen in the bleachers at Wrigley Field, eating popcorn, jawing with fans, loving the game.

Bill Veeck, as in wreck, had the last laugh. In 1991, he was named to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Though his plaque notes his promotions and World Series titles, there is no mention of Eddie Gaedel. But check out the final line.

The Attic - American culture, history, faces, places. True stories for a kinder, cooler America. www.theattic.space

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